Like a lot of kids who grew up in Southern California, I’ve got fond memories of going to Disneyland and seeing characters from my favorite cartoons walking around. So it was a bit of a surprise when I moved to Japan, a country that arguably buys into the concept of Disney magic more wholeheartedly than any other, and met multiple people, generally women, who said the costumed performers were their least favorite part of a visit to Disneyland. “Mickey dances around and acts so cute,” they’d say, “but what if there’s some middle-aged guy inside?”
Personally, I’d say a middle-aged man is still far less appalling than an actual human-sized rodent would be, but somehow that age/gender combination was always held up as the worst possible reality that could be hiding inside the suit.
Meanwhile, in China, Disney fans have come flocking to one Mickey Mouse performer with an even more surprising identity: a 75-year-old woman.
Part of the appeal of a trip to Disneyland is knowing that you’re going to experience the utmost levels of customer service, all in an effort to preserve the illusion that the studio’s animated fantasy worlds have come to life. This requires some pretty strict regulations for park employees, and rumors say it’s a fireable offense for a performer to remove his or her costume’s head in front of guests.
Things are apparently a little more lax, in terms of both employee conduct and intellectual property rights, at Wangcheng Park in Luoyang City in China. While we don’t know if the character’s official name is Mickey or not, we do know that visitors can shake hands and get a hug from a wide-eyed, formal-attire wearing black mouse who wanders the grounds. Excited fans can even snap a picture with the cute rodent for a fee of 15 yuan (US $2.40).
▼ Because Mickey’s gotta get that cheddar so he can buy that cheese.
Of course, entertaining is hard work, and those costumes get awfully hot and sweaty inside. So if you hang around Wangcheng Park long enough, you just might catch the performer peeling off the two-kilogram (4.4-pound) headpiece for a breath of fresh air.
It turns out that not only is pseudo-Mickey really a girl, she’s also 75. The loveable character’s secret identity is Zhi-Qiao Yang, who divorced her husband 18 years ago and currently lives with her 40-year-old son.
Although eligible for government welfare, Yang’s work ethic is too strong for her to stop working entirely. “I don’t want to be a burden to my kid, and since my body is still in good shape, I want to earn an income,” says the cheerful and industrious senior, who sells toys near the park’s gate when not in costume. Yang also mentions that her son is still single, and she hopes to one day put her savings towards his wedding.
Rather than feel betrayed by revelation of who’s been inside the costume all along, visitors to the park have made Yang into a sort of local celebrity. Her biggest admirers, moved by both her devotion to family and spirit of self-reliance, have even taken to calling her Grandma Mickey.
We suppose that makes Yang’s fans her grandchildren. Judging by her selflessness, we’re sure she’s got a big enough heart to love them all right back.
We just hope she doesn’t feel obligated to pay for all their wedding ceremonies, too.